By Mark Robinson
The final place in the Euro 2004 quarter-finals will be settled tonight, as Group D reaches its conclusion. In the feature game Germany take on the Czech Republic, already confirmed as group winners, at the Jose Alvalade stadium in Porto. The Germans know that a victory this evening will see them fill the runners-up spot and eliminate their fiercest rivals Holland in the process.
Germany are aware that if they match Holland’s result they will progress into the knockout stage, where Sweden await in the quarter-final. With the Dutch expected to defeat Latvia in the group’s other evening kick-off, Rudi Voller’s team know that a victory will probably be necessary against what is likely to be a makeshift Czech side.
It will be the tenth competitive match between the two nations, with the Czechs successful only once so far, in the 1934 World Cup. However, there have been three draws, one of which was the 1976 European Championship Final, when the then Czechoslovakia eventually prevailed on penalties to lift the title.
Twenty years later it was Germany’s turn in another final, this time at Euro 96. After falling behind at Wembley, the Germans came back to win 2-1 when Oliver Bierhoff sealed a brace with the golden goal. There are three Czech and two German survivors from that contest in the respective squads this time around.
Much of the excitement surrounding tonight’s eagerly awaited clash has been tempered by the fact that the Czechs have already qualified, and will therefore rest some of their best players ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final with Denmark in Porto.
Germany coach Rudi Voller is determined to remain focussed on his own squad, claiming that speculation surrounding the Czech starting line up would not distract his players from the task ahead. A disappointing draw with Latvia on Saturday afternoon has made qualification much more difficult, but Voller has urged his players to put that performance behind them.
“To be honest I don’t really care about the Czech lineup,” he told the press on Sunday.
“We must look at our own qualities and use them to our advantage. We did not succeed in doing that against Latvia. Obviously we are slightly disappointed by that, but we must put it behind us and prepare to face the Czechs.”
“We always knew that the last game of the group would be like a final for us, and that is how we must approach the game.”
Voller is likely to revert to the 4-5-1 formation that performed effectively against Holland in the opening 1-1 draw, after opting for a 4-4-2 against Latvia. The coach is keen to free up more space for key playmaker Michael Ballack, who will be the most advanced of the midfield players and will look to lend support to lone striker Kevin Kuranyi.
“It is very important for us that Michael can get into the box and into goalscoring positions,” said the coach.
“As soon as he gets near the opponents’ penalty areas they look worried, as they know what he’s capable of. He is now the focal point – but he can cope with that.”
Germany have been unusually ineffective in front of goal so far. Torsten Frings’ free kick is the only goal they have to show for 180 minutes of football, and chances from open play have been few-and-far-between. Voller, however, refused to blame his strikers, instead insisting the whole team was to blame.
“It is unfair to criticise the strikers when the goals do not come, as it concerns the entire team rather than a few individuals. I’m sure we can solve our problems in attack,” he claimed.
Bayern Munich midfielder Ballack has continued his excellent form of the 2002 World Cup, and will be looking to add to his impressive tally of 19 international goals tonight. He was, however, eager to play down his prowess in front of goal and its importance to his team as he spoke to the media on Tuesday.
“I am not putting myself under pressure,” he said.
“It’s not important whether I get the goals or someone else does, as long as someone scores. We must win the game and progress to the next stage, our fans and our history demand it.”
19-year-old midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger is pushing hard for a place in the starting lineup tonight, and after two impressive performances as a substitute so far Voller may well hand the precociously talented Bayern Munich youngster his first start for his country. Bernd Schneider is the most likely man to step down, with Liverpool’s Dietmar Hamann having recovered from a thigh injury.
Other than the inclusion of Schweinsteiger, the Germans should otherwise lineup unchanged from the team that faced Holland in their opening match of the group. Indeed, the German staff and players have been answering more questions about the Czech XI than their own in the run up to the game.
Captain Oliver Kahn, who has seemed back to his authoritative best so far at the finals, claimed on Monday that he believed that the Czechs would be close to full strength – dismissing rumours of wholesale changes from their coach, Karel Bruckner.
“Let’s face it – every team likes to beat Germany and the Czechs will be no different. I believe that they are bluffing over their team selection,” the goalkeeper predicted.
Kahn also claimed that he was confident of victory tonight, particularly as the Czechs will provide a different type of test to the Latvians, who played to defend for the entire 90 minutes on Saturday.
“We have come here to get a job done, and I am absolutely sure that this match will not be our last in Portugal,” he revealed.
“The Czechs love to play attacking football and will certainly leave us more space and time than the Latvians did – we’ll hopefully be able to cash in on the chances we create.”
Bruckner revealed that his players would not be complacent this evening in Lisbon, despite being already assured of topping the group after their mesmerising 3-2 comeback victory against Holland on Saturday night.
“We had no problems with our motivation in our friendly games,” the 64 year-old coach said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“And we are the European Championship finals here, playing against Germany. We want to finish the group with a third victory in a row.”
Bruckner has continually referred to the fact that he will make changes this evening, but is eager to keep the Germans guessing and will not reveal his starting line-up until just before kick off. He claims that the one thing he will be expecting of his players is a better defensive display than against the Dutch, after venting his anger with his players in the aftermath of their heroic comeback.
“We might actually be stronger in some areas,” the coach predicted as he pondered the changes.
“For example, I am certainly expecting a better defensive display. Our substitutes are hungry and will finally get a chance to prove themselves tonight.”
It is likely that wingers Karel Poborsky and Pavel Nedved will be rested in the Czech midfield, and Tomas Galasek is almost certain to start on the bench after he was booked in the win against Holland. 1860 Munich’s Roman Tyce is likely to take Galasek’s place in the holding midfield role. Marek Jankulovski of Udinese will probably claim another of the vacant midfield spots, and will play tonight’s game with his beard dyed in the colours of the Czech flag.
“It is a bet, and I must keep my word,” he said of the dye.
“Germany know how to play these knockout games, have a very strong defence and dangerous strikers. We are ready, but must play well,” he continued.
In attack Bruckner may well keep faith with Liverpool’s Milan Baros, who seems rested and energised following only a limited number of appearances for his club in the latter half of the domestic season. Baros, a scorer in both Czech victories so far, has been a revelation and the coach may well be tempted to allow him to continue.
Marek Heinz of Banik Ostrava is likely to get the vote as Baros’ partner, with Baros’ club-mate Vladimir Smicer operating just behind them. Both Heinz and Smicer have produced winning goals in the opening matches after coming on as late substitutes.
Borussia Dortmund midfielder Tomas Rosicky has echoed his coach’s sentiments regarding the motivation for tonight’s match, and claims that his team-mates are confident of sending the Germans back to his adopted home. He is likely to come up against club colleagues Christian Worns and Torsten Frings in Lisbon tonight.
“I’ve nothing against them personally and they are one of the biggest nations in world football, but we want to send them home.” he said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Czech Rep: Blazek; Hubschman, Ujfalusi, Bolf, Jiranek; Jankulovski, Tyce, Rosicky; Smicer; Baros, Heinz
Germany: Kahn; Friedrich, Worns, Novotny, Lahm; Schweinsteiger, Hamann, Baumann, Frings; Ballack; Kuranyi
Referee: Terje Hauge (Nor)